Safety Concerns Are Keeping Healthcare Workers Home: Prompting Privacy and Personal Safety Can Bring Them Back

In October 2021, the San Leandro Hospital emergency room was locked down when a visitor, upset that COVID-19 restrictions prevented him from visiting a patient, threatened to bring a gun to the California healthcare facility.

The incident is emblematic of a troubling trend of more frequent and severe violent episodes at healthcare facilities.

As Mawata Kamara, an ER nurse present during the San Leandro incident, explains, “Violence has always been a problem. This pandemic really just added a magnifying glass.” These experiences undoubtedly amplify the struggles already experienced by today’s frontline workers. A recent study by The Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation found that more than half of frontline healthcare workers feel burned out due to high levels of mental and physical exhaustion that diminish productivity and exacerbate mental health challenges.

As a result, more than 8% of all healthcare jobs are vacant as more hospitals and healthcare companies navigate surging demand, with 400,000 fewer workers than they had before the pandemic. Meanwhile, 99% of rural hospitals are striving to maintain normal operations while managing extensive staffing shortages.

To recruit and retain top talent while ensuring a safe workplace environment, healthcare employers need to equip frontline workers with the skills and services to protect their privacy and enhance their safety. Here are five steps healthcare workers can take to enhance their security moving forward.

#1 Remove Personal Information From the Internet

As violence against healthcare workers increases, the risks aren’t just constrained to the workplace. Disgruntled patients or their families can easily ascertain workers’ personal information online, as a simple Google search produces detailed reports compiled by “people-search” sites that distribute this information.

It’s essential for healthcare professionals to stop these practices by exercising their legal right to opt out of people-search sites. Whether tackling this task alone or hiring a service to remove this information, the results are undoubtedly worth the effort.

#2 Tighten Social Media Settings

People are prone to oversharing on social media, often reaching a broader audience than they intend. In response, healthcare workers should be especially vigilant about protecting their privacy on social media, understanding that family pictures, personal announcements, and geolocation data can give people ample information to cause harm.

Perform a privacy audit on your social media accounts, ensuring personal information is only shared with its intended audience. At the same time, when maintaining public-facing accounts, healthcare workers should be especially diligent about the content they post and share.

#3 Ensure Account Integrity

Data breaches are increasingly common and far-reaching, compromising more than 5 billion records in the past year, allowing anyone with average technical know-how to access and exploit personally identifiable information (PII), financial data, or account login credentials.

Armed with this information, offenders can effectively wage a cyberattack on anyone, including frontline healthcare workers. Understanding the risks while harnessing available tools to gauge the integrity of the online information, which can compromise safety at work, at home, and online, is key.

#4 Know the Signs of Cyberstalking

According to one industry survey, 20% of physicians report being the victim of stalking or patient harassment. The survey ominously warns that “the internet allows perpetrators to harass their victims, such as health care professionals, more frequently, easily, and anonymously than ever before.”

These risks are amplified in a pandemic-altered healthcare landscape, in which physicians are attacked or exploited online—a troubling trend known as “doxxing”—for enforcing mask mandates and other public health best practices.

Healthcare organizations can support their frontline workers by equipping them with the tools to identify the signs of cyberstalking and initiate an effective response to these malicious efforts.

#5 Seek Support Communities

Nearly 40% of frontline healthcare workers say they do not receive adequate emotional support—a number that increases to 45% among nurses. Privacy and personal safety violations can further isolate employees, making a variety of mental health challenges more acute and further harming employee wellness outcomes.

In other words, employee safety can be enhanced when people feel like they have a safe place to confide challenges, express concerns, and receive ongoing support for the various health, safety, and professional problems that negatively impact the industry’s capacity to attract and retain top talent.

Employee Safety as a Perk

As we reach the 2-year mark of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the devastating impact on frontline healthcare workers is increasingly clear. Moving forward, healthcare employers should consider making privacy a perk, protecting existing employees and supporting recruiting efforts now and in the years ahead.

This can start by helping frontline healthcare providers identify and implement best practices for protecting their privacy and enhancing their personal safety. In a post-pandemic healthcare landscape, this kind of benefit is an efficient way for hospitals and healthcare organizations to show care and foster employee loyalty, as it can make organizations stand out and give them an edge in attracting the valuable talent that is in high demand in so many industries, including the healthcare sector.

Dimitri Shelest is the founder and CEO of OneRep, an online privacy company that has been helping people remove their sensitive information from the Internet since 2015. Shelest is an avid proponent of privacy regulation frameworks and likes to explore cybersecurity and privacy issues as a writer and reader on Medium and Hackernoon.